The A14 story part 2: Economy plus ecology

The second in our series of exclusive behind-the-scenes briefings on the award winning A14 scheme from the team at Atkins. This week Highways hears about how a legacy of wildlife habitat innovations was achieved.

When Atkins worked as part of a joint venture to undertake detailed design responsibilities for the £1.5bn A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon improvement scheme, our decade-long ecological understanding of the scheme also enabled us to introduce innovations in biodiversity mitigation.

The A14 is a major trunk road whose terminals are the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk and junction 19 of the M1 in Leicestershire. It serves heavy local traffic especially around Cambridge, and container lorries from the port. A key section of the upgrade for Highways England was the 12-mile Huntingdon southern bypass, which opened to traffic in December 2019, one year ahead of schedule.

Improving traffic flow

The scheme was given the go-ahead because objectives included several future benefits: improving traffic flow between East Anglia and the Midlands, boosting local economies, cutting up to 20 minutes off average journey times, better-connected surrounding communities – especially for walkers and cyclists – and improving the route’s surrounding wildlife habitats.

Teams had to work together to support the Development Consent Order – the level of permission needed for infrastructure developments categorised as nationally significant – which involved piloting new approaches and innovations as set out in the order. This included 'a clearly demonstrable legacy for the local community beyond the physical presence of the new road'.

This meant protecting and supporting indigenous species of wildlife and plants in the area and mitigating any negative effects of the road construction.

As principal environmental consultant at Atkins, Jean Coultas led the ecological team’s work, liaising with partners and the five subcontractor companies which delivered the overall scheme.

The ecological team’s initial task involved working with transport planners on a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that environmental statements met statutory requirements, gaining licenses in a timely manner to avoid delays and cost, and then as work was underway, creating new areas where biodiversity could thrive, supported by sensitive new planting schemes.

Ecological challenges

Ms Coultas said: 'In a geographical area such as the flatlands of Cambridgeshire there are a significant number of ecological challenges. The water table is high, so drainage is generally poor and the location is surrounded by flood compensation areas.

'We had to use the situation to the best advantage. For example, when we dug borrow pits nearby – to use earth for the new road – rather than bring in the soil needed from other locations, we didn’t fully refill them but instead created small lakes as new wildlife habitats.'

These have resulted in more than a square mile being created as new wildlife habitats across 18 different areas. They have been carefully planted to encourage various indigenous species and habitats including protected species like great crested newts.

The habitats were also link-planted into existing woodland, to create a line of hedgerow to connect one area to another, which encourages dormice, also a protected species.

High corridors and wildlife tunnels

Ms Coultas added: 'We also added plenty of high planting across main routes for bats and barn owls, creating a corridor high enough to protect them from any traffic. We built 24 wildlife tunnels across the scheme to give animals a safe place to cross, supported by directional planting to persuade them to take safer routes.' 

Planting also now screens some lighting and signage, and specimen-size trees were planted to connect the scheme with nearby villages.

Landscaping also involved realigning a river into a horseshoe shape to adjust the watercourse, so it worked with not against, surrounding flood compensation areas due to the variation of ground levels of the overall scheme.

This led to movement of ground that had archaeological implications. There was also a new requirement to reassess the area for any archaeological finds ahead of changes being made, following a ground radar-type geophysical survey and the digging of trial trenches.

The fascinating finds made national and international news, including remains of woolly mammoths and rhinos, remains of a medieval village and rare Roman coins.

Clear communication

New technologies also helped the team work together to deliver innovation into the project, such as the direct transfer of field data into an interactive GIS system, to share knowledge more widely with partners.

The ecology team also led weekly telecoms meetings, and clear lines of communication were business as usual, which helped partners to respond efficiently in securing what was needed in terms of provisioning for the project; such as engaging with stakeholders and being granted ecological licences in time to avoid delays to the construction programme.

Many valuable learnings have come out of the scheme and to capture them for future use the ecology team has undertaken Highways England’s first ‘ecosystem services valuation’ – designed to capture and share the evidence of benefits in this scheme in a new and easily understandable way.

As a consequence of this, the team is also working with the overall scheme contractors to expand the valuation to allow the net balance of biodiversity gains and losses to be recorded.

Ms Coultas said: 'It’s important to introduce this level of biodiversity innovation into schemes of this size. Not only to meet the UK’s aspirations for positive impacts across our road networks but also because with this scheme we have proven that you can introduce and enhance wildlife habitats in a cost-effective way.'

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